Italian Wines: What You Need To Know

Contributed by Stephan Essex

Italian food is beloved all over the world. Pizza, pasta, prosciutto—pretty much anything that has become part of the modern diet began in Italy. But how did these innovators in cuisine wash down all that wonderful food?

Well, just like most Southern European countries, they did it with wine. These days Italian wine is becoming increasingly popular outside the country. Places like Cibo wine bar in South Beach are exploding in popularity thanks to their renown. So what should you be looking for when purchasing a bottle of Italian wine?

Image: Flickr
Image: Flickr

The first thing you’ll notice will be the label. If possible, you’ll want to find out what variety of grape was used for the wine, and where the grapes were grown. Some labels do not contain this information directly, but many do. For example, the grape and region may be contained within the name of the wine. Fiano di Avellino, for instance, means that the wine was made from Fiano grapes in the Avellino region. Once you understand the pattern you can determine where your wine came from and begin to understand how this informs its flavour.

Just as in France, Italy has a set of strict regulations defining how bottles of wine can and can’t be labelled. Italian wine classifications begin with the lowest rung of wines, which do not need to be grown in a particular place to command a particular name. This includes bottles of wine simply named “Vino” which just means table wine.

The next step up in the hierarchy is anything with the letters IGT on the label. IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, which means the wine had to conform to some regulations. Usually it had to be grown in a rough geographical area using a particular variety of grape.

Above IGT is DOC, meaning Denominazione Origine Controllata. These wines follow more stringent conditions on where the grapes are grown and the types of grapes used. Regulations can even include how the grapes are farmed and what equipment is allowed.

At the highest level are the DOCG wines where the G stands for Garantita, meaning “guarantee.” DOCG wines are the most exclusive wines in Italy, a bit like Champagne in France.

So that covers classification, but what about the wines themselves? White wines are made from a group of white grapes including  Pinot Grigio, Garganega and Trebbiano. You’ll often see these names on the bottles. Red wines are made from Nebbiolo, Barbera and Sangiovese.

Pinot Grigio originates from the northeastern part of Italy. The grapes themselves actually have a pinkish hue, but at the end of the winemaking process they come out white. The best bottles of Pinot Grigio will produce hints of melon with a subtle nutty aftertaste.

Nebbiolo, by contrast, is rose-scented and full of the essence of dried cherries. Be prepared to spend a bit of money; Nebbiolo wines tend to be frighteningly expensive. But Nebbiolo lovers are also obsessed with the quality and charm of the wine. It goes especially well with lamb.

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